I often drop my kids off for school and daycare in the morning. It gives me a little more time with them, and being in management now means I have more control over my schedule than my wife, which makes it easier. Lately, I’ve often also been dropping the neighbor’s daughter as well – let’s call her A. A is besties with my kids and it’s an easy thing I can do to help out a neighbor I like. She’s always well behaved and easy to have along, but lately my five year old son has gotten particularly amped up and crazy when she’s around. He has a… pretty gigantic baby crush on her. It’s cute. Mostly. What’s less cute is all the crazy that goes with being a five year old who is desperate to attract A’s attention.
After I dropped the girls off and on the way to my son’s preschool this morning, I had a conversation with him about his behavior. I told him he needed to stop yelling and getting in trouble and doing things to pester his friend. We talked about how A really doesn’t like people yelling around her and it makes her uncomfortable, and about him yelling means other people have to yell to be heard. I asked him how he thought that made her feel. He realized his mistake and said “bad” as his little face crumpled. He was sad. I told him I love him and it’s ok, but an opportunity to learn. We sat in silence for a moment.
He got very thoughtful and asked “so how do I get girls to like me?“
Oooooh boy…. I should have been prepared for this one, but I wasn’t. I told him I’d think about it as we drove along and listened to music.
After a little thought, I told him if you want a girl to like you and pay attention to you, you need to do three things.*
- Help her feel safe. Don’t yell at her or do or say mean things, things that will make her uncomfortable, or things that make her fear she’s going to get hurt.
- Listen to her and genuinely care about what she says and thinks. Stop when she says stop, the first time.
- Find the things she loves. Do things for her and with her that she loves and will bring her joy.
We went over the three things and talked about them and how he can do them the rest of the ride to his school. This isn’t a light switch moment, but I think maybe it’s the start of a learning process for him.
I wanted to share some of what we discussed with other dads to get your take. Guiding our sons towards a healthier version of masculinity is one of our most important responsibilities, and it’s worth discussing.
Thinking about my own learning process, it’s striking how different my answer is now than it would have been as a younger man or a teenager. 19 year old me would have likely said something like “just treat them like people, the same as anyone else.” And that’s good advice up to a point. But the fact is, men are dangerous and that danger colors our interactions with women far more than most men realize.
To use an extreme example, women are far more likely to be killed by men than the other way around and the person most likely to kill or injure a woman is a male intimate partner. Every woman I know has stories about times men have tried to hurt them. Virtually all have stories about harassment, and most have experienced sexual assault. These things happen to men too of course, but the risk profile is pretty lopsided. Winning trust and affection in any sort of healthy relationship therefore has to start with de-risking the encounter.
At 19 I hadn’t yet realized how much I was insulated from fear of the people around me by the fact I am a tall and physically strong white man. Utah Phillips once said he came into the world “armed to the teeth” with the weapons of privilege. For men, and for big men like my son and I in particular, our bodies are weapons as well. That is another type of privilege I don’t often hear discussed. And so going into the world in a peaceful and responsible way requires training and work to make sure that we are not wielding those weapons irresponsibly and causing harm. Sometimes it’s easy – crossing the street when walking late at night to make sure I am never walking behind an unaccompanied woman so she doesn’t have to worry if I mean her harm. Sometimes it’s much more difficult – particularly as a young man I struggled with mastering my emotions when I was angry or upset to make sure my voice stayed level and my volume didn’t increase. Big men don’t get to have big emotions, at least not with anyone else around.
Like me, my son is bigger and stronger than almost all of his peers – he’s in the 98th percentile for size for a boy his age and weighs a solid 50% more than A even though she’s a year older. When he gets into his rowdy crazy little boy mode there is a genuine possibility of hurting someone, even though it doesn’t come from a place of malice. To be the kind, caring, nurturing man that he has the capacity to become, he must learn to control his emotions, his behavior, and his body – something many men much older than him have not mastered. So I led by encouraging him to make sure that A feels safe with him. I think that’s good advice for men at any age.
Of course, safety isn’t just physical! There’s strong data showing that one of the best predictors of a marriage’s longevity is the ratio of kind to unkind things the spouses say to each other. I suspect that rule applies to most human relationships. As men, there’s a lot of subtle and not so subtle ugliness in culture around how we’re talk to the women in our lives. It’s worth examining.
Are you listening to her?
Are you taking her concerns seriously?
Are you treating her as an equal in word and deed?
Take the time to notice the things she’s good at and give sincere compliments. It’s worth the effort.
Really listening to women is something I’ve seen a lot of men and boys struggle with over the years. Pick up artists, self-proclaimed “alpha males,” and other similar scum make no secret about the way they devalue women’s speech. Those people didn’t just appear from nowhere of course, they’re reflecting and reinforcing very old modes of thinking. I remember being a teenager and having a wrestling coach who made a joke during practice that if you know what you’re doing it’s easy to turn “Don’t! Stop!” into “Don’t stop!”. I remember my father saying in all seriousness that women just aren’t intellectuals and you can’t expect them to be. I remember any number of TV shows with jokes around women just talking endlessly until the man tunes out. I’d like to think things have improved in the intervening decades, but I’d be lying to myself. Our entire society tells men and boys not to value women’s words. The conditioning is not subtle. It’s impossible to build friendships and relationships with people when you devalue what they tell you and ignore boundaries.
The third point, sharing her joy, is in some ways the most critical. Strong friendships and relationships are based on connecting to the parts of the other person that light them up. Most people like to be around people who make them feel good. It isn’t always easy, especially when a relationship gets strained. It also requires remembering the other person is a person with their own desires and dreams and not an object or a status symbol. I truly believe that failing here is one of the biggest reasons people break up.
Having these conversations with our sons about how they should relate to women is more important than ever. Given how many men I’ve known who have no idea how to interact with smart and well adjusted women, I want to start that learning process early. The current right wing backlash against feminism is powerful and well funded. From “influencers” like Andre Tate teaching boys to hate and abuse women to the fact that no one has been prosecuted based on the contents of the Epstein files to attacks on reproductive freedoms to the recent Trump-endorsed republican candidate who argued women shouldn’t have the right to vote; it’s a scary time to be a woman. It’s also a scary time to be a dad trying to teach good values when the society around me seems to want to glorify misogyny at every opportunity and teach my son to look down on his mother, his sister, his friends.
What would you add to my list?